日本昔話: Folktales, Fables, and Folly

The cover of Japanese Children's Favorite Stories

When I think about my childhood, I tend to think about the stories my mother used to read me. I had the most beat-up copies of Mother Goose and my favorite part was watching the dish run away with the spoon. Japanese folklore, however, possesses a magic all its own. It may not have tableware eloping with each other, but there are tales of teakettles turning into badgers and children being born from peaches. On top of having some of the most amazing tales, they’re also great for practicing basic Japanese comprehension. Continue reading and have a look at some of my favorite stories, some links for e-books in hiragana, and a fun 70’s cartoon with a super-long opening theme!

While I was cleaning up at the bookstore, I found a copy of Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories with Little One-Inch (or 一寸法師、いっすんぼうし) on the cover. One of my favorite classes in college allowed me to study Japanese folklore, and so I immediately picked up the book and brought it home. A fantastic collection of beautifully illustrated children’s stories awaits readers, and it would be lovely to read it to younger children. The story of Momotaro is a popular one.

Perhaps you may have heard of it: it’s a story about an old couple who finds a giant peach bobbing along a river, and before as they’re about to cut it open, they find that a little boy is contained within the abnormally large fruit. They call him Momotaro, translated as “Peach Boy”. As the boy comes of age, he leaves home in order to make his elderly parents proud by fighting demons on an island. Along the way, he befriends a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, and the uncanny assortment heads to the island together. Of course, they attain victory, and Momotaro and his family live happily ever after.

The stories bounce around from topic to topic, but like many fairy tales, there is a lesson to be learned at the end of each one. Momotaro teaches children about friendship, filial piety, and the triumph of good over evil. The Tongue-Cut Sparrow story tells us about the dangers of greed. And stories like the Magic Teakettle, where said teakettle is actually a badger in disguise? I’m not too sure what that’s supposed to say, but I guess you just have to be careful about what iron pots you’re heating. Still a fun story nonetheless.

Aside from having often hilarious stories, they are very good for practicing Japanese. Urashima Tarou is one of my favorite stories — in this case, it’s not so hilarious. Tarou rescues a turtle which pleases the Dragon God of the sea, who invites him to stay at his palace. Unfortunately, time under the sea runs differently. Tarou stays for three days underwater, and when he goes back up to see his family, he finds that 300 years have passed on land. Have a look at this link to read the .pdf version of the story! You can also find a collection of them from this blog.

From the official website of 日本昔話

Another great way to get some practice in is to watch 日本昔話, or Japanese Folktales, a 1970s Japanese children’s show. My favorite professor would play a couple of episodes for us when we had downtime during translation class, and it will definitely help with listening comprehension. Even if you can’t understand Japanese yet, it is animated well enough so that you should understand what’s going on. The story of Little One-Inch (一寸法師) is up on this YouTube link, so do have a look!

It’s always fun to learn about what children of other cultures grow up with. I hope everyone finds them enjoyable! Share them with your children or little cousins, or just smile and enjoy them yourself. がんばってね、みなさん!

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